[OT] Mailing Lists: Good for argument, bad for discussion

Levi Pearson levi at cold.org
Sun Jun 29 16:23:38 MDT 2008


Dave Smith <dave at thesmithfam.org> writes:

> My wife has recently gotten into email discussion lists. I thought
> these lists were only for geeks, so I cringed at the thought. Watching
> her participate, I was surprised to notice several similarities to
> geek mailing lists. First, off topic threads tend to get more heated
> attention than on topic threads. Second, mailing lists are great for
> arguing, but bad for discussion. Both of these things I would have
> expected to be unique to the geek community, but I was wrong. Let me
> give you a true example that illustrates both phenomena, because it
> was (to me at least) quite entertaining.

I think 'geeks' aren't terribly different from the rest of humanity
aside from their hobbies and interests.  I cringe whenever I see a
'geek guide to X' or 'how to understand your geek' essay.

Off-topic threads get more heated simply because they're what the
involved people feel strongly about.  If they didn't feel strongly
about them, the on-topic threads wouldn't veer off on tangents when
the hot-button issues are raised.

> I think this phenomenon happens because it's easy in an email to trim
> away things you don't want to respond to, and focus only on the part
> of the email that you disagree with. It's easy to believe that someone
> disagrees with you 100% because they chose to respond to the 1% of
> what you said that they disagreed with, even if that 1% was totally
> tangential to your main point (which the responder may *did* agree
> with, but you'd never know). I'm not sure if I like or dislike this
> because frankly, it'd be a boring list if everyone just responded with
> "me too". However, I do think it encourages argument and nit picking
> rather than good old-fashioned discussion.

I think it probably takes more mental effort to write up a decent
email for a list than it does to put a few words into a discussion.
Thus, when we agree with something, we let it stand rather than
offering some elaboration or other discussion-promoting comment.  When
there are words there you disagree strongly with, though, and no time
constraint to build a response... well, there begins the descent into
argument.

The time delay of email and the lengthiness of responses makes good
discussion difficult as well.  If everyone replied to every bit of
every previous email, the emails would grow exponentially and it would
take forever to come up with replies.  In a face-to-face discussion,
there's only one real thread of discussion, so you can't take tangents
if you want to keep the main concept in discussion.

                --Levi



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